A JOURNEY THROUGH WANING COMMUNISM
By Walter James Murray
The weekly Japan Airlines flight to Khabarovsk, a Boeing 727, took off from Niigata and flew north across the Sea of Japan, taking about two hours to Khabarovsk, a Siberian city of more than a half a million inhabitants situated on the Amur River in the Russian Far East. The day was the 24th of April 1984 and I, a solitary traveler, was one of eleven passengers, the others being Japanese businessmen in pursuit of commercial opportunities in Siberia. For the apparent convenience of the cabin crew we were seated together in the first class section irrespective of what the tickets had cost. The flight was relatively short and the service consisted simply of a cup of tea. The morning sky was cloudless as the plane flew high over the water. On approaching land I expected to see snow on the ground but a spring thaw must have melted it away.
A mounting feeling of excitement augmented by apprehension stirred within me as the realization of where I was going to be hit home. Another country, yes, but not just any other country. It was the Soviet Union, a communist state dubbed by the then American president, Ronald Reagan, as the “Evil Empire.” It was the same country that had shot down a Korean civilian airliner less than eight months before into the very sea over which I had just flown. It was the country, too, that I had been conditioned for decades to fear and distrust. Now I would see it and judge it for myself.
The plane rolled to a stop on the tarmac in front of a small, one-story terminal building. As I deplaned I looked around and could see no other aircraft anywhere in sight, civilian or military. A uniformed official met us at the bottom of the stairs and guided us, with me immediately behind, past a bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin in a heroic pose into the terminal. The expression on Lenin’s face, flinty and determined, contrasted sharply with the expressions of studied indifference on the faces of the officials I was to encounter as I submitted my passport and luggage for inspection. Immigration formalities were surprisingly swift with merely one page of the three-page visa I’d procured in Tokyo stamped and removed and another stamp affixed to a remaining page. The passport pages were not stamped. (This same maneuver was utilized by Israeli immigration for travelers who lived in Arab countries.) The remaining two visa pages would be removed later at the border with Finland, thirteen days and some dozen or more time zones ahead.
My suitcase was on the floor beside a young customs agent when I got to that area and I laid my shoulder bag down alongside it. Using gestures, he ordered me to unzip the shoulder bag and then he reached in and pulled out three pocket books I’d brought along. One of them, an assortment of pre-Soviet Russian short stories, caught his eye and he summoned a uniformed young woman hovering nearby who took it to a corner and leafed through it. (Almost every official in the Soviet Union I dealt with appeared to be young.) After a minute or two she came back and returned it to the official. Not once did she look at me or say a word to either of us. He, in turn, put it back where he had found it. When I made an attempt to open the suitcase he casually waved me away. Anyway, I was sure there would be plenty of chances for official snoops to go through my luggage in the succeeding days. Taking out a roll of candy mints from a jacket pocket, I offered the agent one and he unhesitatingly accepted and after an exchange of perfunctory nods I picked up my luggage, turned toward the exit and, feeling a bit giddy, walked into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Having prepaid for transfers as a part of a package deal, which also included trains, hotel rooms and breakfasts, a car and driver was waiting outside to take me to where I would be staying. One of the Japanese businessmen, who spoke no English, shared the car with me. The ride was through a city street with a mere smattering of people in evidence and even fewer vehicles. If there were traffic lights, I didn’t see them. After what could well have been a fierce Siberian winter, the condition of the pavement was poor with potholes commonplace. Huge apartment blocks rose up on every side. It was an abrupt, queer, unsettling yet refreshing change from the bright neon world of the modern, fast-paced, crowded, industrious Japan I had just departed.
The hotel was one in a chain of government owned hotels that went by the name Intourist and it was obvious I was expected. After being shown a room and washing up, I returned to the lobby and changed some Japanese yen into Russian rubles, as I would certainly need pocket money. While at the desk I asked if it were possible for me to visit a classroom at one of the high schools in the city, particularly an English class, but I could get no support or encouragement. I was offered, instead, a tour of a wire factory but I turned that down.
In no time I was out on the town strolling along streets, going wherever I wanted. I didn’t have a map of the city to guide me and the signs were unintelligible but I thought I was in little danger of becoming lost. There was not much commercial activity and the few stores I entered had meager goods to sell. On one street I came upon a long line of people, perhaps thirty, all middle-aged women, queued up to buy something at the head of the line. Curious to see what it was, I hurried ahead and came upon an old beat-up truck parked at the curb with women selling cucumbers from off the tailgate. Cucumbers? I thought that if I had brought a crate of bananas from Japan I could have sold them for a fortune. As I continued my walk, I chanced upon a woman selling what must have been homemade ice cream from a small, crude sidewalk stand and I stopped and bought some, paying by putting a handful of coins where she could take what she needed from my outstretched palm. It tasted like real ice cream and I was surprised and pleased by what was clearly private enterprise in both circumstances.
The Amur River flows through Khabarovsk and was an easy walk from the hotel. On the riverbank I joined a scattering of men below a steep cliff watching and listening to the pack ice groaning and screaming offshore. It heaved and buckled noisily with stupendous power as it battered its way to the Pacific Ocean. The 2,700-mile Amur forms a border between Siberia and China and I briefly mused on the reality of China lying only twenty-five miles from where I was. Relations between the two giants were then estranged, a fact that may have partly explained the almost total absence of Asian faces in Khabarovsk. I doubted, though, if any Chinese lived there at all.
It was past the middle of the afternoon when I returned to the hotel and I figured a time for refreshments. There was a bar just off the lobby with a sign on a door that announced it would open at half past three so I found a place to sit down and waited. At three forty-five the door was still closed. I walked over and knocked and in a moment a man opened it slightly and stuck his head out and fixed a pair of annoyed eyes on mine. Pointing to the sign, I motioned that I wanted to come in but he, scowling and shaking his head, said heatedly, “Neyt!” I shrugged my shoulders and again pointed out the sign and in response the door was slammed with a determined finality right in my face. So much for a Siberian happy hour.
Returning to the lobby in the early evening to find a spot to have dinner, I saw that a dance was going on in a dining room attended by scores of beefy men and women all dressed for the evening. They appeared to be local workers and were from forty to sixty years of age. I saw an empty table in their midst and quickly claimed it for myself and began the always challenging and occasionally futile effort to catch the eye of a waitress. For a while I was totally ignored but with dogged persistence I finally made eye contact and a tired waitress reluctantly approached my table. Smiling gratefully, I asked for beer, using the Russian word, but she replied with a series of “Neyts.” But I persisted until abruptly she turned her back and disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. Looking around at other nearby tables I couldn’t see a bottle or glass of beer anywhere so I thought my chances were slim but to my astonishment she reappeared with a bottle of beer! And a glass, too. And after that I even managed to get a plate of food. I had learned a lesson I was to use pretty much throughout my stay with varying degree of luck: never take nyet for an answer. It did work sometimes but not always.
The dancing continued through a second bottle of beer and the meal. The music, for the most part, was Western big band stuff from the 1940s and performed by live musicians. Blue Moon was one. I left while the festivities were in full swing and retired to my room ascending in an odd, shaky elevator that Elisha Otis, had he ridden one, would have disapproved of or deemed a curiosity at best.
I was up early the next morning and down at the riverbank to see how the ice breakup was going. It must have been a popular pastime as there was quite a few people collected at that early hour, many more than the day before. I was pleased that nobody seemed to notice me, simply accepting me as one of them. From the riverbank I went on another walking tour of the city, this time I noticing two Asian faces in an otherwise exclusively European population. One was of a woman with a Soviet army officer, probably her husband, whom I passed on the street, and the other was the face of a man peering out of the back window of a bus. Both appeared to be tribal.
In every city in the world there are bakeries and Khabarovsk was no exception. This one was well stocked and had a good number of customers choosing bread from open bins. Most of the bread, if not all, was black bread. I selected a big, fresh loaf from a bin and took it to a young, bored cashier and proffered a handful of coins. She picked out the amount she wanted, never once looking at me, and turned away in an action similar to a rebuff that was to become more or less routine during my sojourn in xenophobic Russia. I half expected her to offer me wrapping of some sort for the bread but nothing was forthcoming so I tucked the bread under my arm and returned to the street. With bread as sustenance for the days ahead I knew I wouldn’t go hungry on the train.
THE TRANS SIBERIAN EXPRESS
An attractive, congenial young English speaking Intourist escort, a student at a local college, accompanied me to the train station. Here was an opportunity, I thought, to ask some questions and I led off with one that asked why I hadn’t seen any Chinese people in a city with China only a few miles away. Her reply was that since Russians had settled the area before any others, only Russians were present. She compared the situation with that of the discovery of America by Columbus. I thought her response to be peculiar. At the railroad station she led me out onto the platform where the Trans Siberian Express from Vladivostok to Moscow was loading and took me to the car to which I had been assigned. A beaming woman attendant standing in the car’s doorway welcomed me profusely and led me to a compartment. I thought the welcome was genuine and believed that, as an American, I may have been the first in a long time to have come aboard the Trans Siberian, probably the first American since the shooting down of the Korean Airline flight the previous summer. She soon returned with bedding and a glass of steaming tea from the urn at the end of the car. I could have tea anytime, she explained, paying for it at the end of the journey. It was the only request for a gratuity, however indirect, I was to hear the entire trip. With the tea came generous-sized cubes of Cuban sugar.
At ten minutes after two o’clock p.m. local time, right on schedule, the Siberian Express gently lurched into motion and moved easily and speedily out of the station pointed westward. There would be days of travel ahead through the taiga and steppes of Siberia and on into Europe. I was delighted to be aboard.
The ticket I had bought in Japan was for the higher priced so-called soft class, allowing for a compartment for two that was both spacious and comfortable. There was ample storage space under the lift-up bed and in a roomy nook over the door. The two beds were of ample size and separated by a meter-length aisle. The occupants shared a small hinged table at the window. A major drawback was that the windows, three panes of glass, were extremely dirty due to condensation that had formed between the panes over the long winter. Not only in my compartment did it exist but throughout the train. At a few spots it was possible to see reasonably well through the three layers of glass but those spots were few and far between. It wasn’t long before I had located all of them, including those in the corridor. I was going to be viewing Siberia through peepholes.
I soon initiated a routine I was to follow for the six days I would be on the train. From a lone peephole in my compartment I could sit and look out toward the south then I’d lie on the bunk and read for a while and then go out into the corridor to one of the three or four peepholes I had staked out there. The corridor looked to the north. When I became tired I’d lie down for a brief nap, have a glass of tea, and then start looking out toward the south again. On and on it went, mile after mile. I never knew what I would be seeing next. What I was seeing was for the first and, I was sure, the only time. The view those first three days was primarily of trees, millions of trees, but still I never tired of looking.
The car consisted of eight compartments, all soft class, and had been built in what was then called East Germany (GDR). It was solidly built and rode the rails well. At one end was a small room for an attendant, a samovar (tea urn) and a toilet. At the other end was a larger toilet. Both had cold-water taps that emptied, as did the toilets, directly onto the tracks below. Piped music played in each compartment and was controlled by a volume knob over the bunks. Smoking was forbidden within the cars, forcing the smokers (there were many) to puff in the cold, noisy, drafty vestibules between the cars. I was thankful I had given up smoking eight months before.
In the compartment adjacent to mine was a blonde woman of about 25 traveling with her husband and infant daughter on a holiday to her hometown of Kuybyshev (present-day Samara) on the Volga River in European Russia. They had boarded the train in Vladivostok and would be on the train the full seven days. He was a major in the army and she a graduate of a university in Vladivostok where she had majored in English. As I was out in the corridor often she couldn’t help noticing me but on that first day she kept her distance, unable to decide whether to talk to me or not. On the second day she bid me a good morning and I bid her the same and the ice was broken. We found conversation to be easy, as she was eager to talk to relieve the understandable boredom she was experiencing on the train. Her husband, for reasons of his own, never joined us and as far as I could tell rarely left the compartment.
I was the first native speaker of English with whom she had ever spoken and at first she was nervous and hesitant but I assured her that her English was fine and she soon relaxed. By the third day she was sitting with me on my bunk with her little girl on her lap and we talked freely. We avoided politics as a matter of course; it wouldn’t have been suitable under the circumstances. It was an excellent opportunity for me to speak with a native, so to speak, as I had thought there would be few if any Russians I could communicate with. I gave her the copy of Time magazine I had brought along and a tin of smoked clams and she, in turn, presented me with a tin of beef issued to Soviet army personnel and a tin of salmon roe. They were evidently well stocked with food for the trip, as I didn’t ever see them going to the dining car. On the third day, as we were coming into a city, I told her its name was Chita, pronouncing it like “CHI-ta,” with the accent on the first syllable. She quickly corrected me, asserting that it was “Chi-TA.” “CHI-ta,” she informed me with a straight face, was the name of Tarzan’s monkey.
For the first two nights on the train my roommate was a young engineer going home after employment on the Kamchatka Peninsula. He was a nice looking, pleasant, friendly fellow, English speaking, who had boarded the train in Kharbarovsk from a farewell party where considerable alcohol must have been downed in celebration. With him were two other engineers who had also been on the peninsula and were going home, too. They were very drunk. When they discovered I was an American they erupted into such exuberance that it gradually overwhelmed me. With their continuous, intrusive probing delivered through a haze of vodka, I rapidly came to the end of my patience and good humor. They were heavy smokers as well, repeatedly coming and going to the vestibule between the cars to smoke. Finally, no longer able to maintain my patience, I turned distant and unresponsive until they finally left me alone. They were simply too carried away with my exoticness and had become boorish and a nuisance. While the one still slept across from me at night I rarely saw him or the other two after that and they detrained on the third day.
Late in the afternoon on that first day, as I stood at a corridor window squinting through a newfound peephole, a grizzled looking man in his sixties paused beside me, tapped me on the shoulder, and inquired in an accented whisper, “American?” I nodded in the affirmative and he grabbed hold of my hand, shook it, and then went on his way.
The trains on the doubled-tracked Trans Siberian route keep to a speed of about forty miles an hour, hour after hour, mile after mile. Most carry goods. Trains passing in the opposite direction were frequent with numerous flatcars carrying army vehicles, mainly tanks. Most if not all of the trains were forty to fifty cars in length and none had a caboose. Some of the sections on the railway were electrified while others utilized diesel locomotives. I saw two steam locomotive graveyards (there no doubt were more) with scores of junked engines and I also saw a small steam shunter still in service in a railway yard in Sverdlovsk.
The scenery consisted principally of limitless expanses of trees (the taiga) stretching for miles on either side of the tracks. Every so often a small village would come into view with a hundred feet of the tracks with the dozen or so houses looking like hovels, rustic and unpainted. I never did see a paved road nor did I see a human being doing a chore in a village. I didn’t even see a dog. The designation “Hooverville” would be an apt term to describe the villages but even a Hooverville may well have been preferable, if not desirable, in some cases. The living conditions had to have been pitiful if not arduous even when not experiencing a Siberian winter and their remoteness was extreme. No train stopped at these towns, some of which may have housed railroad workers. And through the entire journey I saw no wildlife, not even a wolf.
On the second day, still in the Siberian far east, close to two score of convicts in striped dress escorted by four armed uniformed guards came into view trudging along a pathway beside the tracks. The convicts were in military formation, that is in ranks, and armed guards were present with two guards leading and two bring up the rear. Not one of the convicts or a guard so much as glanced at the passing train. The proverbial Siberian salt mine came to mind but those poor unfortunate devils didn’t look like salt miners to me.
At another time, just north of the border with China, the train went through a long tunnel guarded at both ends by armed soldiers. Armed soldiers were posted at either end of the bridges all through Siberia over which the train crossed as well.
The third car behind the one in which I rode was the diner. The first time I went there, I was handed a twenty-page menu in fractured English by a whimsical waiter. It featured every delicacy imaginable and I was momentarily taken aback until I realized he was having fun with me. When he returned to take my order I asked him what he had.
“Have soup and chicken,” he declared in a tone of finality.
“What’s the soup?” I inquired, as if I didn’t know.
“Borscht,” he responded.
I ordered the soup and chicken. And tea. When the food came I saw immediately I was not going to eat well on this trip. The soup was tasty but thin and the chicken was, well, skin and bones, bones mostly. There was some bread, too. I was eating at the bottom of the food chain in the Soviet Union; the only decent food I was to find was in the cities at the tourist hotels. The next day, not knowing the schedule of the dining car (everything on the train was posted in Moscow time), I went late, after it had closed, and was rudely turned away. Thoroughly miffed, I didn’t go back into that dining car again, choosing instead to tap into my own food supply.
I had brought along in my luggage food items from Japan, mainly canned tuna, crackers and candy, and I had that big loaf of black bread I had purchased in Kharbarovsk. I soon got into the routine of darting from the train at stations that appeared promising and when the stop was sufficiently long enough for such an excursion. Usually there was nothing worthwhile to buy from the old ladies on the platforms who sold various things. Once I found a kiosk on a platform selling beer and I bought three bottles. It was, however, unnerving getting off the train because I absolutely had to get back on before it pulled out. There was never a warning toot, for instance; it simply pulled away without a sound.
A timetable hung on the wall in the corridor of each car that enabled me to keep track of where I was and, even though it was in Cyrillic, I had a map in English (Roman letters) that allowed me to decipher the names of the stops. The schedule also told the length of time the train would be in the station, permitting me to plan ahead and choose the most likely places to get out and forage. A two-minute stop was unthinkable but a six-minute one was worth considering.
As the train approached a station in a medium-sized town on the second day, a twenty-foot wall, beginning with a tower paralleling the tracks, came into view. It took me but an instant to recognize it as a prison. When the car stopped I found I could see over the wall somewhat and not too far away in the back of the prison was a rooftop crowded with men shoulder to shoulder looking in the direction of the train. I felt their eyes on me, even though they couldn’t see me, and in a moment or two I sensed their yearning flowing over the wall and into the train. They must have lingered on that roof every day and knew the schedule of the Trans Siberian by heart. How they must have dreamed of being with me aboard the train en route to European Russia to be with their families and the relative freedom they would enjoy there. For me it was a fleeting but nevertheless poignant glimpse of Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s unforgettable Gulag Archipelago.
Later that day in another station I saw a group of working-class men on the platform outside my car that were seeing off one of their own. They were a boisterous group, shouting and patting the man on the back with friendly but hard hitting whacks. Then he turned and boarded the car with cries of encouragement ringing in his ears. As he turned I saw on his broad chest a blinding array of medals swinging wildly and flashing brilliantly in the sunlight. When he came into the car and down the corridor toward me, I thought he resembled a bizarre caricature of an Eagle Scout. He was short and stocky, about 30, with thick unruly blond hair. He carried a heavy suitcase and as he lumbered along his medals jangled audibly on his suit coat. I had to press against a window to let him by.
When he got to the other end of the car he pushed the door to the vestibule open and saw that the bottom hinge was broken. He stood there momentarily in stunned disbelief before getting down on his hands and knees for an inspection. When he got up he turned my way and came down the corridor with an expression of determination all the while calling for the attendant. From her he got some simple tools and went back to the broken door, took off his coat and got down on his knees and got to work. For at least twenty minutes he struggled to fix the broken hinge but to no avail, as the door refused all his attempts to repair it. Giving up was obviously traumatic but he eventually had to concede defeat. He returned the tools to the attendant and disappeared into the next car. I felt sorry for him. If the Soviet Union were to continue to exist, it would no doubt be due to zealots like him. He was the quintessential handyman. I never saw him again.
On the third day I got a new roommate, a man in his late forties with a weathered face, big hands and the strong body of a working man. He stowed a suitcase in the space under his bunk, made up his bed and then was gone for and hour or so. When he returned I was preparing for my daily happy hour and had just taken out a fifth of Jack Daniels bourbon. Pointing out the bottle to him, I gestured for him to join me and his eyes lit up in understanding; that’s all it took to establishment rapport. When he realized there were no glasses he went out and came back with the two that were usually for tea but were entirely suitable for our needs as well. I poured a couple of fingers of whiskey into the glasses, handed him one, and proposed a silent toast. We drank but from the face he made I could tell he didn’t like bourbon.
He stood up, raised the lid of his seat, reached in and brought out from his suitcase a liter bottle of vodka. Then he rummaged in the suitcase further and came up with a smoked salmon that he had stuffed in with his shirts. It must have weighted a good five or six pounds. He opened the bottle of vodka and filled our glasses and we drank, bottoms up. It was good, smooth stuff. Wielding a pocketknife, he hacked hunks of meat from the salmon while I brought out what black bread I still had left. He smiled approvingly when he saw that. Now we had the ingredients for a true happy hour and we sat down together as old friends.
Until dark, a couple of hours later, we drank and nibbled away on the salmon and bread, and talked. We drank the vodka until the bottle was empty. He spoke not a word of English and I no Russian but we communicated in spite of the language barrier. He told me he was an auto mechanic from a town somewhere north of Kharbarovsk and that he had been visiting a daughter at the stop where he had earlier boarded the train. Now he was on his way to Moscow to pay a visit to a son. In my turn I told him I had been living in Japan and that earlier I had been in China. At the mention of China he grimaced and, with gestures, made fun of their way of eating by raising an imaginary bowl to his mouth and shoveling imaginary rice into it. He could be cynical, rough and tough; he was not the sort to be awarded medals, as the handyman was. When I left the train the following morning I was careful not to awaken him.
No one was there when I stepped onto a dark platform at the Irkutsk railroad station just before six o’clock in the morning. I followed others who had gotten off the train down the platform and into a tunnel under the tracks that led to the station building. Still no one approached me. In the poorly lit waiting rooms there were people everywhere and there was no place to sit down. Soldiers were sprawled asleep on the benches and others milled about. I could see no restaurant, not even a refreshment stand. I strolled through the waiting rooms, suitcase in hand, expecting someone to accost me and after a good ten minutes a young man was at my side inquiring politely whether or not I was Mister Murray. There was little chance that I wasn’t. I said yes and he led me to a van parked outside and drove me, his only rider, to the hotel. We chatted easily, as his English was good. He told me he was a student at a local college and promised to see me again after I had settled in but I saw no more of him. He would have been an ideal comrade to show me around the city.
Checking in at the Intourist hotel, I was relieved of my passport at the desk, given a room key, and directed to a room on the sixth floor. There would be no bellboy, I had discovered, in the whole of the USSR. The self-service elevator, lurching and shaking disturbingly, gave me considerable pause but it nevertheless saw me safely to my floor. It was similar to the one at the hotel in Kharbarovsk. The thought occurred to me they might have been designed and built by first-year students at a Siberian vocational school. I had told the woman at the desk that I would require hot water immediately and she promised I would have it. There was a woman attendant on the floor, too, and I told her my need for hot water as well. Three days had passed since I had had a bath and I needed a shave as well. Once in the bathroom, I let the water run and run but it was cold and stayed cold. Calls to the desk only elicited the advice that I let it run more. It was a long frustrating wait but, at last, there was water warm enough for a shower and a shave.
Having had a good night’s sleep on the train, I felt fine and was anxious to get outside and explore Irkutsk, a city situated in south central Siberia with a population of about 600,000. After having breakfast in the hotel dining room (prepaid), I went through the lobby and out the door toward the Angara River, which flowed westward just a short distance from the entrance to the hotel. I hadn’t gone but two hundred feet, though, before I was accosted by a young fellow wanting to know what I had to sell. I was momentarily perplexed but I gave him the once-over and asked him what he wanted to buy. He countered by saying that he would buy anything I had. That was a new twist for me for in my travels street people who stopped me always wanted to sell me something, not buy something. I thought for a moment he might be a police agent of some kind so I told him I needed what I had and continued on my way. This was true because I really did need what I had, especially my clothing. I really think he would have bought what I was wearing right off my back. But, I wondered, if he were just an opportunist looking for a chance to make money reselling my clothes, how would he pay for them? In rubles? What would I do with rubles? As I was to learn, there was little if anything worthwhile to buy in the Soviet Union. Most likely such a transaction would be simply ignored in a faraway place like Irkutsk.
Near the hotel were a few very old homes constructed of wood that reflected the image I had of Siberia and I stopped to study them closer. They appeared to be unoccupied but I could see no way I could get inside so I went on. A commercial area near the hotel was more like a small town setting than a big city. And it had the look of a ghost town, too, as there were no people out and about. I found a couple of small shops open and went in but nothing was interesting and the proprietors as usual ignored me. As in Kharbarovsk, large apartment blocks dominated the city but some of the old wooden residences, perhaps a century old or even older, remained. I walked by a number that had thick walls and each window had three panes of glass between the inside and the outside with enough room for potted flowers to be placed between the panes. I learned from a brochure that the government had a plan to raze all the old wooden houses in the city due to of a severe infestation of vermin. Another problem was in connecting the older homes to central heating.
Arriving back at the hotel, I found a tour being readied to leave immediately for Lake Baikal and I joined it. Lake Baikal is the world’s eighth largest fresh water lake in area and is a salient feature on any world map. Two American women in their twenties had already taken their seats on the bus, having arrived the day before after a rail trip that had begun in China. We would be on the same train to Moscow the following day. Also on the bus was a West German couple. A young male Russian guide and a driver completed the party.
The guide was a student from a local university and full of unwavering opinions crafted to make Russians out the innocent victims of the rapacious West. He went out of his way in a snide manner to condemn the capitalist West for invading the newly formed Soviet Union in the 1920s to destroy the Bolsheviks. I didn’t appreciate his gratuitous lecture one bit and made my displeasure known in no uncertain terms. What had happened more than sixty years before had nothing to do with me, I told him, and, furthermore, I said to him that my generation had had nothing to do with it either. He fell silent for a while and then the tour continued as it should have.
Before reaching the lake the bus pulled off onto a side road and drove to a hilltop covered with trees to which indigenous peoples had recently attached hundreds of small pieces of paper. Written on the papers, the guide explained, were prayers beseeching their Gods for favors. With no indigenous people in sight, I asked the guide where he thought they might be and he informed me they lived on the other side of the lake.
As we approached the shore of Lake Baikal, the first thing to attract our attention was a derelict ferryboat partly on its side beached in a sea of ice. It had been used in years previous to transport railroad cars to the far shore. Ice was piled up on the shore but further out on the lake we could see open water. This was the spot where the Angara River originated, carrying water from Lake Baikal to the Yenisey River and thence to the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean, a total distance of 3,694 miles. In response to the guide’s bragging, I pointed out to him that Lake Superior in North America was more extensive in area (31,700 sq. mi.) than Baikal (12,162 sq. mi.) but he would have none of that. (Lake Baikal does in fact surpass other lakes in the world in depth at 5,315 feet.) To him, though, Baikal was number one in every category.
Near the lake shore where we had stopped was a compound that enclosed, among other structures, a general store to which the guide directed us, as any guide in the world would do to give his charges a chance to spend some of their money. In the store were various handicrafts, presumably made by the local indigenous people, some clothing and a few food items. I was surprised to see bottles of vodka on a shelf so I bought two pint-size ones, one of which I carried all the way home to Minnesota.
The westbound Trans Siberian Express passes through Irkutsk at six o’clock in the morning so I was up at four thirty to shower and shave and was at the front desk by five. The transfer van to the station would be at the hotel at five twenty. As I came out of the wobbly, scary elevator into the lobby, I saw the two American women with whom I had been on the tour to the lake the day before huddled dejectedly in overstuffed chairs in a dark corner of the lobby. They did not respond to my greeting as I passed by and I thought it was probably the early hour. At the front desk I faced a grim, grumpy woman clerk in her 30s and asked for my passport, please. Her response was that I would have to wait for the manager and he wouldn’t be available until seven o’clock. I was immediately thunderstruck. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard and asked her to repeat it. There was nothing she could do, she added with a tone of finality.
To have the fixed itinerary on which I traveled being reduced to tatters by this obstinate, humdrum woman, was out of the question. In a state of disbelief and exasperation, I leaned in over the counter into her face and, in an authoritarian voice, demanded my passport. She had to know that to miss the train would be disastrous for me. It was leaving in less than an hour, I told her, and I absolutely had to be on it. I had to have my passport. Again she said, even more firmly if imaginable, that there was nothing she could do and she turned away with a dismissive shrug. The two women huddled in the dark corner behind me must have gone through the same ordeal before I showed up. No wonder they were unresponsive to my morning greeting.
No one, it was evident, had given instructions to the woman to give out anything and she wasn’t about to have the manager on her neck for doing something without being told. Changing tact, I tried to reason with her, explaining to her that I was on a fixed schedule and of the absolute necessity that I be on that train that very morning with my passport. She held her ground, though, refusing now even to look at me. She was still fearful of getting into trouble but, I thought, enjoying the power, however fleeting, that she wielded over me.
Again changing tact, I demanded in no uncertain terms in my most intimidating and threatening manner that I WILL have my passport! Fear and consternation appeared on the woman’s face and she began to waver in her determination. I continued my harangue and I could see her resolve crumble. That did the trick. It was just what she needed: an authority figure to order her into submission or else. It was how the Soviets ruled their country. Reluctantly she stepped into an adjacent office and returned with a stack of passports from a variety of countries, plunking them down helter-skelter on the counter in front of me. Besides my passport, there were the passports of the two American women behind me who, with unbelievable swiftness, snatched theirs up and fled to the outside. The van had just pulled up and I joined them and we left for the station with profound relief flooding our minds. It had been a close call. I had fortuitously been their savior and I was to have the opportunity to rescue them again in another couple of days.
It was exhilarating to be again moving through the countryside encased in a snug train after twenty-four hours of touring at a quite different speed. It was still the Trans Siberian Express but with a different crew and another set of passengers and now my window, just as dirty as the former one, faced north. I had to find replacement peepholes all over again. The land west of Irkutsk turned into steppe where to the east it had been taiga and the towns through which the train passed took on a more substantial, permanent and relatively prosperous look. The forlorn, woebegone, ramshackle Hoovervilles were for the most part left behind.
The two American women were seated two cars to the rear of mine and were riding “hard class,” as opposed to “soft class.” This meant they shared a four-person, four-bed compartment during the night and they, I noticed in passing, had the upper bunks. During daytime the compartment accommodated six to eight passengers. There was no restriction regarding the gender of individuals sharing soft class as there was in hard class. I hardly ever saw them for the three days we were on the train and wonder if they ever able to see anything of the passing scene through those dirty windows. They weren’t the peeping kind.
For the first morning out of Irkutsk I had my compartment all to myself until a father and son moved in about midday. The father immediately lay down on the bunk across from mine and went to sleep, taking up almost all the space. The boy, around 15, sat down on what little space remained and began to nod off. I reached over pulled him to my bed where he, too, lay down and instantly fell asleep. After I removed his boots and partially covered him with a blanket, I went out into the corridor to find another peephole and contemplate the passing countryside.
When I returned a little later they were awake. The father had turned up the volume knob for some taped music that was coming through the room’s loudspeaker and both father and son were on their bed seemingly enjoying what to me was incredibly loud, obnoxious music blasting our eardrums. I reached for the knob and turned it down to a more reasonable level but the father turned it right up again, pointing to his son. It was for the boy, he was indicating, putting the onus on him. The father was a gruff, rustic sort and the son meek and mild. I went back to the tranquility of my peephole. Later that day they got off the train and I had the compartment once again to myself.
I still kept track of where I was by referring to the timetable on the wall in the corridor. When a promising stop was coming up, I would have my coat on and ready to sprint outside to forage for whatever I could make use of. I found, for example, some bakery goods in Novosibirsk (a twenty-minute stop).
It was on the platform at Novosibirsk, while on my way back to the car, that I saw the two American women again. They were on the platform surrounded by a group of Soviet soldiers and were obviously damsels in distress. The taller of the two caught my eye and cried out to me, “Please help us!” The soldiers were innocently pressing into the women in a boorish and intimidating manner and the women were scared to death. Fixing a smile on my face, I wheeled my six foot three, 210 pounds around and barged unhesitatingly into the cluster of uniformed young soldiers sending them scattering. The women, vastly relieved, said the soldiers had told them they were on leave after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. The women also said they were harassing them at times on the train and that may be why I almost never saw them out of their compartment. They had told me earlier that they were on their way to Western Europe after stops in Moscow, Kiev and Prague. I was never to see them again either in Moscow or afterwards.
After a night during which I had the compartment to myself, I got a roommate, a young engineer on his way home to Moscow. He told me he was taking a holiday from his job building a natural gas pipeline from Siberia westward into continental Europe. He spoke English well and allowed that I was the first native speaker with whom he had ever spoken. We hit it off fairly well. Among other things, he was curious about an internal passport system he had heard we had in America and was surprised when I said we had no such policy. I explained that Americans could roam freely throughout the country and that internal movement was usually for the purpose of finding employment. In the Soviet Union the state found employment for you and issued the necessary papers for travel. Otherwise you stayed put. He told me, too, that they were installing some equipment on the pipeline that the American government had recently embargoed. When he asked what I thought of his country I told him some of the impressions I’d had so far and added, in what I thought was innocent jest, my observation that many of the Russian women I had seen up to then were rather heavy. I further said the reason might be because they were putting too much Cuban sugar into their tea. He didn’t like that and defended Russian womanhood gallantly. In trying to atone for my lack of discretion, I explained that I had just come from Japan where women, in contrast to Russians, were extremely petit, but it was no use and our relationship cooled appreciatively.
From Sverdlovsk the train began a labored yet almost imperceptible climb into the foothills and to the top of the Ural Mountains. From my seat about twenty cars back, I could catch occasional sounds of the locomotives (an extra one had been attached) working hard to pull the Express up the rising gradient. From my perspective in the dining car, the mountains appeared to be more the size of hills, the original terrain having been worn down over eons. The Urals created the arbitrary boundary between Asia and Europe and I was excited by the expectation of crossing a continental divide and a continental border at the same time.
Somewhere I had read of a stone monument visible from the train that marked the boundary. The cleanest windows on the train, I had discovered, were in the dining car and it was there that I set up watch. Not knowing on which side of the tracks the monument would appear, I had to be careful to keep an eye on both sides of the train. To my surprise and delight I spotted it coming into view on the left side and hurriedly went to a window on that side and stood wide-eyed as the monument crept passed by no more than eighty feet away. It signified the end of that part of my journey through the vast ocean-like expanse that is Siberia. I was now in Europe and felt a surge of renewal and relief at being back in a more familiar environment and out of an immense area of backwardness. The next day I would be in Moscow.
During the final night on the train I was awakened in the early hours before dawn by an intense light and an eerie silence that had filled the compartment. The train had come to a dead stop and was surrounded by uniformed men, probably KBG (police) personnel, with probes in hand milling about searching exterior parts of the cars, that is undercarriage, top of the cars, wherever someone could possibly have hidden. To the best of my knowledge, they did not come inside the train. They were, I thought, likely looking for individuals escaping from incarceration or exile in Siberia. I would have queried my roommate, the engineer, but he didn’t move or open his eyes during the whole stop. The doleful memory of those convicts days before on the prison rooftop in eastern Siberia came to mind. Here, if they had survived the grueling miles, is as far as they would have gotten. I lay down again and went back to sleep.
When I awoke it was broad daylight and the train was speeding through countryside totally unlike what I had been going through for the previous five days. It was remarkable in that it was an established, substantial, well-tended countryside, not a collection of downtrodden villages and dirt roads surrounded by endless taiga or steppe. It was Europe and Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union, was the next stop. I had learned we would arrive at the station at three in the afternoon, some hours late. Perhaps the stop where the train was checked for runaways had delayed us. I was delighted and felt as if reborn. Japan and China were now only distant, dim memories and the shantytowns and muddy roads and the rusticity of the primitive, frontier setting that was Siberia was fast receding as well.
It was ten minutes after three when the Trans Siberian Express came to a stop at the railroad station in Moscow. It had taken seven days from Kharbarovsk, six days on the train and one day in Irkutsk. As I stepped onto the platform a man approached me and inquired, “Mister Murray?” I said “Yes” and in minutes I was in a car being driven to a hotel named the Kosmos. Weeks before in Tokyo, when I was offered a choice of hotels in both Moscow and Leningrad, I said that I wanted the oldest one in each city. My arrival in Moscow, unfortunately, occurred during the time of the May Day celebrations and all the downtown hotels, where the older, grander hotels would have been, were booked. The Kosmos, relatively new, was far from the center of town and I had no choice but to go there.
The transition from days in a room that is moving to a room that is fixed takes a while to get used to. The luxury of a bath with hot water is something to appreciate, too, after three days of simple hand washing in cold water. The privacy, too, was welcome. The Kosmos is a large hotel, French built, and it seemed to be full of middle-aged tourists from socialist countries in the Soviet block there to celebrate May Day. I saw no one like me during my stay. Outside, across a wide street, was a monument honoring the cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin and to one side of the monument was an entrance to a subway station. Except for a brief stroll in the neighborhood, I stayed in, had dinner, and went to bed early.
To be admitted into the breakfast dining room the next morning, I merely had to show my room key to help myself to a variety of foods heaped upon tables buffet style. I took a walk through the neighborhood again that morning, poking my nose into shops to see what people were buying. There was more on sale than in Siberia, especially of meat, but compared to Japan the shelves were bare. I crossed the street to take a closer look at the monument and then I descended into the adjacent subway station to learn how I could make use of it. I had to determine how people bought their tickets and got down to the platforms where the trains stopped. I stood a few minutes observing people going first to a ticket dispenser, inserting a coin, taking the ticket to a turnstile, and going to a down escalator. It would require, I saw, a five-kopeck coin. Following what others were doing, I joined a stream of people buying tickets, went through the turnstile and to a speedy down escalator and had the ride of my life. It was simply awesome to be hurtling down at high speed shaking like in a noisy, clattery Siberian elevator through a tube into the very bowels of the earth. I later learned it had been dug deep to serve as an air raid shelter in time of need. Those moving stairs would, I thought, fit perfectly in a North American amusement park.
With language everywhere written in the Cyrillic script, I was consigned to a state of complete illiteracy. In a test ride to get my feet wet, I boarded a train and went three stops, got off, crossed to the opposite platform and boarded a train going back the other way to where I had started. I made sure of how many stops I kept count of the stops carefully on my fingers. This way would, hoped, sufficiently familiarize myself to the system and it worked well. From a station platform I saw that when trains disappeared into a tunnel, a clock placed above the entrance to the station started recording the time so users could tell how long it had been since a train had been in the station. The subway cars, well cared for and clean, were modern except for one I rode in that was a splendidly restored antique wooden car. I arrived back at the Kosmos buoyed with confidence and ready to tackle the big city. But first I would have lunch.
In dining rooms in the Soviet Union I more often than not faced the difficulties inherent in traveling alone. Intourist service personnel who dealt with tourists on a daily basis were accustomed to dealing with a group rather than a single person and were just not used to anyone like me walking in and asking to be seated. Almost always, whenever I would enter a restaurant at the Kosmos (and later in Leningrad) for lunch or dinner, I would be challenged by a haughty maitre d’ inquiring whether or not I was with a group. I would say no, I was not with a group, and the response was usually, “I’m sorry, we only serve groups.” He would then turn his back on me and walk away. A couple of times, after being asked if I were with a group, I turned and elaborately scanned the area behind me and then confirmed straight-faced that I was not with a group. That didn’t work at all, though. Once I went right past a maitre d’ to a nearby table, sat myself down, and demanded a menu. That time the man was so taken aback that I actually was presented with a menu and served!
Before heading out for some sightseeing, I picked up a street map of Moscow at the front desk but, to my dismay, it was in incomprehensible Finnish! There was no other, I was told. Since Finnish is written in Latin script, though, I could at least make out some of the words (like museum) to give me an idea of where to go. Map in hand, I crossed the street and went into the subway station, put a five kopeck coin into the ticket machine, went down that washboard of an escalator and caught a train for Red Square as if I were a native.
Scanning a route map on the wall of the subway (in Cyrillic, of course), I calculated there were ten stops between the hotel and Red Square. Once on the train I used my fingers again to count down the stations and when I had run out of fingers I got off. Emerging at street level I found myself on an island in an intersection without a clue as to where I was. Going back underground, I was eventually able, after a couple of false leads, to find a way to come up on the other side of the street. From that side I could see the colorful domes of St. Basil’s monument in Red Square, about four blocks away, and I started walking toward them.
I map I had of Moscow was no map at all. It was grossly distorted with distances greatly exaggerated or shorted as if it were drawn in a mirrored funhouse. It was almost useless but it was all I had. I understood later that it was made that way intentionally to fool and baffle some perceived enemies. It sure fooled me.
When I arrived at the square five minutes later I stood motionless for some time taking in the familiar scene. From pictures and film I had gotten the idea it was much larger that it actually was. There was the Kremlin where tzars and commissars had ruled on the other side of its formidable walls for centuries. Below the walls was Lenin’s tomb with a long line of people queued up to pay their respects. To my right was the G.U.M. department store. It was a beautiful day in May and all around me were others milling about taking in the sights. I didn’t see one recognizable Westerner in the bunch. Behind me was the onion-domed St. Basil’s monument (or cathedral) and it was to there where I turned next.
St. Basil’s is a 16th-century structure put up to commemorate a victory by the Russians over the Tartars. Constructed of brick and mortar, inside are a succession of small, empty, dark and gloomy rooms. I wandered from one to another, all of which were devoid of furniture or artifacts, and it must have been in the fourth or fifth one that I unexpectedly heard a woman’s voice. I had stopped and was peering into a hole in the wall, wondering what it was for, when the voice made me pause. The only other person in the room was a female in a uniform sitting on a stool and I was sure I had not seen her when I came in. She was a guard of some kind but exactly what she was guarding in those empty rooms I couldn’t imagine. I looked at her and she spoke a few words to me but I couldn’t catch what it was she was saying. Getting closer I then understood her to say “vent.” “It’s a vent,” she was saying, “It is to bring in air.”
“Oh,” I said in response, and that caused her to launch into a detailed description of the workings of the old monument’s ventilation system. Soon we were chatting easily, she sitting on the stool and me standing. It was small talk. To my surprise she brought up the subject of India, a country in which I had lived and taught in a number of colleges eleven years earlier. There wasn’t any way, I thought, for her, a museum guard, to have known I had been there. Indian history and culture were her major at university, she explained, but regretted she had not been permitted to go for first-hand study. I answered some of her questions about India and I told her some of my adventures and added that Indian food was one of my favorites. There were two Indian restaurants in Moscow, she quickly informed me, and that prompted me to invite her to have dinner with me in one of them. It was obvious by now she was something other than simply a museum guard and that she was pursuing an invitation. But a museum guard on Moscow moonlighting as a hustler? I doubted it. She accepted my offer without a moment’s hesitation and we set a time and place to meet the next day. At five thirty in the afternoon I would pick her up at the main entrance of St. Basil’s. I had a date.
Out on Red Square once again, I chose to circle the Kremlin walls counter-clockwise and began by passing Lenin’s tomb, putting it on my left. As soon as I stepped out, thought, a grim, burly plainclothes policeman wielding a billy club shunted me aside. I had to stay in a certain area and had inadvertently crossed an invisible line. Passing the tomb I briefly considered getting in the line but the length of the queue deterred me. Another day, I thought. Continuing my walk keeping the walls of the Kremlin on my left, I wondered if the doddering, sick old chairman of the Communist Party was inside. At that time, 1984, the leader was Konstantin Chernenko. He would die the following year, opening up the office for Mikhail Gorbachev. My thoughts, too, were on the woman with whom I was to meet on the following day.
She was about five foot seven, a dark, attractive, buxom brunette in her late thirties with an aura of worldliness about her. Her name, she said, was Natasha. Her mother, I would discover, was Turkish, and her father Georgian. She claimed to be a student majoring in Indian studies at Moscow University. For such a woman, a government employee, to approach a foreigner as she did, was neither appropriate nor permitted in that closed, xenophobic society. Her “job” as a museum guard put her in an ideal position to comply with tasks her handlers assigned to her, especially in engaging foreigners in conversation to determine whether or not they would be potential intelligence resources. There was no doubt in my mind that I was being set up and it was also likely that I had been tailed from the hotel to the square. Her knowledge of my having been in India could only be accounted for by the fact that in my travels I had left tracks. Was she a KBG minion? A Moscow Mata Hari? I would play it by ear.
Having accomplished my walk around the Kremlin walls, I crossed the square to the G.U.M. department store and did some window-shopping. I found some fairly well made good-looking boots in one shop and tried on a couple of pairs but nothing fit. Clerks in the few shops I browsed resolutely ignored me; I was the invisible man. The building itself was elegant but there wasn’t anything, except for the boots, I thought worthwhile buying. It was now getting late and I had to make my way back to the hotel. From the square I retraced my route to the station, boarded a train and counted the stops and when I emerged above ground ten fingers later there was Yuri Gargarin to greet me. Piece of cake, I thought.
The next day, my last in Moscow, I thought I’d try to find the Red Army Museum. Studying the Finnish language city map, I was able to locate it and figured I could get to a subway station nearby and to the museum itself on foot. I passed by Yuri again and down the escalator and by counting fingers managed to change subway lines and eventually arrive at the station the map showed was near the museum. But upon coming out into the light of day I was instantly lost. Approaching two policemen idling nearby and brandishing the so-called map, I asked them with gestures for help. They greeted me pleasantly, studied the map, and put me on a streetcar forthwith with smiles and words of encouragement. I was on my own.
I rode three stops before I thought it best I get off. Totally as a loss and wondering what to do, I spotted what looked like a taxi stand. A closer look confirmed it. I saw a dozen or so taxis parked along with a crew of drivers seemingly enjoying a break. I walked up to the group and flashed the map and in moments I was surrounded by cabbies. Fingers and words flew furiously as they strove to determine where I wanted to go. They understood the word “museum” and when I pointed out the location on the map smiles and expressions of comprehension filled their faces. After a brief huddle in which a driver was chosen, I was escorted to a taxi by the entire group of drivers who saw me off. The fare to the museum was two rubles.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, I was only two weeks short of my eleventh birthday. Nevertheless, even at that age, I was acutely aware of what was going on in the world and I followed the news in the papers diligently. I particularly studied newspaper maps showing the movement of the various military forces from both sides on the battlefield. The maps transfixed me with their arrows showing the advancing and retreating armies. Later I read the history of the war extensively and this background served me well as I went through the museum because all of the explanations were in Russian and Cyrillic script. Consequently, I understood next to nothing of what there was in print yet I comprehended a good deal of what I saw.
The museum is a large masonry building with two floors of war-related exhibits and with additional displays outside. Visitors sign a guest book at the entrance. Admission is free. The rooms are chock full of war memorabilia hanging on the walls, in cases and on the floors. To me all was familiar. I fell in behind a group of African students almost immediately and wondered they where they came from. When an opportunity arose to ask, I sidled up to one and inquired, “Where are you from?” Startled, he gave me a quick look and murmured “Ghana,” and hurried away as if afraid of being seen with me. Later I passed a group of bemedaled old men, undoubtedly war veterans, being lectured to by a young female tour guide. She was explaining at some length what they were looking at and I thought those old soldiers may have known more than she did.
In a first-floor room there was a glass case at least fifty feet long containing, among other artifacts, a huge assortment of medals, chiefly iron crosses, awarded to German soldiers, soldiers who were later killed or taken prisoner. In that same room was another case, about a meter square, with a pane of glass covering a bed of what appeared to be sand. I finally determined it to be a chunk of beachfront saturated with shrapnel that had come from the shore of the Volga River at Stalingrad. It had been bombarded with shot and shell for months on end and was a truly unique bit of wartime debris.
There was another exhibit in a room on the floor above that affected me the most. At first glance it seemed like a pile of junk, metal junk in a corner circled by a rope to keep curious hands from touching it. I stood some moments studying it before I realized it was airplane wreckage, twisted and torn into jagged pieces most likely after a terrible crash. A fighter plane? I couldn’t tell. There seemed to be only fragments of fuselage and perhaps pieces of wing. There was no engine. But there had to be some reason for it to be in the museum. Then I made out some Roman lettering on a fragment and my eyebrows went up. Roman? In an instant I knew what it was. It simply had to be! I started to laugh in an incredulous and embarrassing manner. I couldn’t help it. I reached in over the rope and grasped a fair-sized fragment and shook it roughly and noisily until a stout woman guard, who I hadn’t noticed before, rushed up shouting, “Nyet! Nyet!” When I turned and looked at her she was pointing at a replica of a rocket above and behind me, the same model of rocket that had shot this plane down.
I was confronting, of course, debris from the Lockheed U-2 spy plane flown covertly over the Soviet Union by Gary Powers in May 1960, twenty-four years before. It had caused a rift in American-Soviet relations that extended the Cold War for further decades. I couldn’t help but take a moment to reflect on the impressions gained by the thousands of Russian school children who must have been shown this case of Western perfidy. No wonder mistrust and fear soured relations between our two countries for so long.
I managed to find a taxi outside the museum and returned to the hotel where I had lunch. A city the size of Moscow in most countries would have had a large selection of restaurants from which to choose but there were few if any here where one could walk in and order a meal. I don’t think there were any. I rested in my room for a while and then packed and took my luggage to the hotel checkroom. The overnight train to Leningrad was schedule to leave at eleven o’clock that night. I still had plenty of time to take the subway to Red Square one more time and to take another walk around the center of Moscow. Then I had to pick up my date for an evening out at an Indian restaurant.
It was another nice sunny day with the temperature in the 60s as I strolled through the area of downtown Moscow. At one point I found myself in the neighborhood of the American Embassy and the sight of the American flag was welcome. The most striking difference, from other cities of like size I noted, was the lack of amenities one takes for granted, such as restaurants, drugstores, banks, movie houses, sidewalk kiosks. There was no feeling of vitality, no diversion, no fun. On the plus side there were no beggars and the streets were spick and span. But with even a cursory look-around, it was difficult, if not impossible, to believe the Soviet Union was a world power. To me was a police state with an autocratic, self-serving leadership that brooked no interference. It was a country, too, of tremendous resources that should have made it rich and allowed for its citizens to live the good life. But after nine days of travel I had seen mostly poverty, backwardness and wariness. It was third world at best.
At five o’clock I was moving apace over the bricks of Red Square toward St. Basil’s, skirting the numerous clusters of people in animated conversation as the afternoon hours waned. Ahead, near the entrance to the monument, a crowd filled the space but I was able to spot my date almost immediately. It was only a little after five but she was out early and, I could see, in conversation with a hatless man, thirtyish, who was dressed in a suit and tie. He had policeman written all over him and appeared to be giving her last minute instructions. She must have sensed my approach for she glanced quickly in my direction, saw me, spoke something to the man and he vanished instantly as if into thin air.
Even though I was early, she was already into street clothes and clearly ready to go. Her greeting was stiff and contrived and, with no further ado, we headed out across the square in the direction of Lenin’s tomb. Her dress was nondescript with a wrap to ward off the evening chill. She opened the conversation with a statement that the rich countries were taking advantage of the poorer ones by exploiting them and raiding them of their resources. In other words, she was implying, rich countries were thieves. I countered by saying that if they wanted to buy commodities on the world markets they, like me, would have to pay for them. Their resources, I stated, did just that. Then she said that if I wanted to marry a Russian woman it would cost me three thousand dollars for an exit visa to get her out of the country. I had no desire for a wife, I replied, Russian or otherwise. With that settled, she relaxed and warmed and became once again the friendly, sociable woman of the stool the day before.
We went by Lenin’s mausoleum where a long line of tourists inched their way toward the doors leading to the display of the 60-year-old dead body of the founder of the Soviet Union. I told her I hadn’t yet gone through it and was taken aback by her dismissive comment that it was just “a corpse” and, “Who wants to see a corpse?” I had to agree but I thought a remark like that at one time would have earned her a one-way ticket (if she were lucky) to the land I had just seen only days before through peepholes. (In similar circumstance two years earlier in Nanjing in The People’s Republic of China, I was told, to my astonishment, that Mao Zedong, another communist titan, was “obsolete.”) In another few minutes we were passing Moscow University and she pointed out a couple of buildings in which she said she had classes. We descended into a subway station a few minutes later and caught a train for the suburbs and the Indian restaurant.
It was dusk when we emerged from the station and we walked through darkening streets to a building that had no indication or sign of any kind it was a restaurant. It had to have been a private club. Once in the door we asked suspiciously what we wanted. It was obvious she had not made arrangements but after some minutes of subdued entreaty and a telephone call we were escorted up a flight of stairs and over a crowded dance floor into a dining room off to the side. Not once did the man, who I presumed to be the manager, look directly at me. In Russia I was ever the quintessential invisible man, the man who wasn’t there.
There were no more than half a dozen tables in the room where we were seated. Our table, similar to the others, had a dimly lit lamp, an ashtray and a tablecloth. It wasn’t long before the tables around us were occupied. There were more tables in the room where the dance floor was and perhaps in other dining rooms as well. We sat across from one another a mere a yard apart yet culturally and politically as far apart as planets. The conversation was bland, mere small talk. When I asked if she wanted a drink she said no. I didn’t have one either. I attempted to engage her in a discussion about India but she seemed to have lost interest. She did say she loved spices and lamented the fact that spices were unavailable in Russia. When I told her how I had thrown away a whole shelf of spices when I left Tokyo she was horrified and said she wished I could have saved them for her.
A waitress came to take our order and I had her order for me, too. The band in the next room started up the music, music from the Big Band Era, and it drowned out any further conversation. The food that came was all right but it was not the sort of Indian food I knew. Without the spices, that is curry, it doesn’t work. We drank tea with the meal. As we ate and chatted between onslaughts from the band, I noticed a remarkable peculiarity about her. In that dim room I saw her one instant as an old woman of sixty and then, in the blink of an eye, a beautiful woman of thirty. It was an inexplicable and curious transformation that continued on throughout the meal. She wore little or no makeup and seemed to be relaxed but her moods were difficult for me to fathom.
Being gallant, I asked her to dance and I was pleased she refused. The beat of the music was fast and the volume incredibly loud, especially from the brass, and I knew I’d be bumping into some rather bulky revelers, both men and woman. The band had no waltzes in their repertoire. As on the dance floor at the hotel in Kharbarovsk, the dancers were all middle-aged and of a formidable size.
We were in the restaurant no more than two hours and, since I had a train to catch, we were out of there by nine o’clock. The party was going full blast as we struggled across the dance floor to the stairs and down to the door below where I was presented with the bill. Being satisfied with the amount, I paid, again noting that the man avoided looking at me. Natasha, a mere pawn in this enterprise, had made no move for her purse. The streets were now quite dark as we walked to the subway and caught a train to the city. From that train we transferred to another line that took me to a stop where I could catch yet another train to the Kosmos. Before we parted she asked me to mail her some toy soldiers from America for a nephew and gave me a mailing address but later, at home, I decided against mailing anything to her. Then, with smiles, we said good-bye and I gave her a peck on the cheek. I was off to Leningrad and then it occurred to me she had never asked me when I was to leave Moscow or where I was going. And she never asked me my name. She didn’t ask because she already knew.
At the hotel I retrieved my luggage (a suitcase and shoulder bag) and went to the entranceway to await the car that would take me to the station. Stepping outside for a moment, I was accosted by an overeager cab driver who tried to coerce me into his taxi. I told him I had a ride, a prepaid ride, and I was in no way going with him but even that didn’t deter him. His insistence was reprehensible to say the least; to him western tourists were apparently easy pickings. I escaped by going back into the hotel and I stayed there until the car and driver assigned to me came to fetch me. At the station the driver carried my suitcase to the train and made no attempt to hustle me.
The overnight train to Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) took eight hours and I slept the whole way. Instead of sharing a compartment, though, I was put into a tiny one-bed room at the end of the car normally reserved, I presumed, for a crewmember. The sun was up when the train pulled into the station and the usual car and driver were there to meet me.
The hotel, the Europeiskaya, had been build in the early 1870s and somehow had survived the passage of one hundred and ten years and the ruinous Siege of Leningrad in 1941-42 during World War II. Tsar Alexander II could well have dined there. I was assigned a room on the first floor, far from the lobby, comprised of a sitting room furnished in period pieces, a double bed in a curtained alcove and a spacious bath with antiquated but workable plumbing. The floors had a delightful squeak. Outside the window, in an adjacent park, a life-sized statue of the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin returned my stare. In the last city on my tour, after three humdrum hotel rooms and three Spartan train compartments, I found myself in impeccable accommodations but with only two days more to enjoy them.
Leningrad to me was a very different city from Moscow, much more Russian in appearance. Those mammoth cold buildings in Moscow for which Stalin was responsible were not in evidence here. There were buildings of exquisite facades full of character and obviously from a different era. Many must have been rebuilt from the wreckage of war. Too many, however, had been sorely neglected and showed serious signs of deterioration. Canals wended their way through the city and were spanned by stone-arched bridges. Quaint streetcars provided transportation and the townspeople seemed more numerous and relaxed. I was relaxed as well and found I thoroughly liked the city, even with its drawbacks.
I picked up another one of those curious, distorted and baffling maps to try to exercise a modicum of independence but, with the exception of the Neva River (it’s hard to hide a river), there was no attempt to depict validity. The Heritage Museum is on the river and I found it after an easy walk from the hotel. With its stupendous art collection, its treasures rival any museum in the world. I was particularly awestruck by a room devoted entirely to the painter Paul Gauguin and in another area marble statuary was simply overpowering in its beauty, not to mention eroticism. The alleged map showed a place of interest in the city not too far upstream on the Neva and I chose to go there on foot. I thought that if I kept the river to my left I would sooner or later find it but that was a mistake. I walked and walked, retracing my steps after dead ends and going around innumerable barriers but got nowhere. The map was less than useless. Giving up, I set out to find a streetcar and return to the area of the hotel.
Turning my back on the river, I walked down an old, leafy, quiet neighborhood street of row houses without a soul in sight. After a short distance I heard a door slam behind me and the sound of high heels clattering on the sidewalk. I turned and saw a tall, comely, tarted-up young woman in a short, tight skirt strutting in my wake. Astonished, I slowed, stopped and stared at her but she, following the usual practice of her countrymen, avoided any eye contact with me. Abruptly, she turned up a flight of stairs into another building and disappeared into a doorway. She was clearly on the lookout for cruising Ivans (a k a Johns) and saw in me an opportunity to put out for hard currency. So went my preconceived and certainly ill founded notion I had had of puritanical socialism.
After an early dinner the first night in the hotel’s top floor restaurant (the one on the first floor had turned me away because I wasn’t “with a group”), I relaxed in my room, my imagination running wild conjuring up the echo of ghosts I was certain still lingered in the shadows. A hundred and ten years adds up to over forty thousand nights, according to my calculator, and it wouldn’t be too far off to fancy that close to seventy thousand guests over the eleven decades had occupied this room, had slept, drank, read, eaten, cried, prayed, wrote letters, procreated, fornicated, dreamed, laughed, smoked, dressed and undressed, became ill, played games, intrigued, and died. Who knows, there might even have been a murder or suicide in this room. I was sure the walls had eyes and ears to have witnessed and stored a variety of human folly, endeavor, and tragedy.
Strolling along the river under a beautiful blue sky the next day, I came upon an excursion boat taking on passengers for a cruise on the Neva and I joined a line that had formed to buy tickets. It was a happy group, mostly families with children. As the line moved gradually toward the ticket booth, an ominous figure approached in the shape of a huge, bear-like jackbooted man in a uniform pounding the pavement and brandishing the most frightful scowl on any face in the whole of the Soviet Union. He was the image of a stereotypical Russian in one of Pat Oliphant’s political cartoons and on his chest was a rich array of medals (but the handyman put him to shame). He exuded a fierce aura of intimidation and his demeanor cried out to the families enjoying the day, “How dare you be having a good time! Why aren’t you good-for-nothing people working!” Two ordinary uniformed aides trailed immediately behind him, paper and pencil in hand ready to write out free one-way tickets to Siberia. The aides, however, seemed to be enjoying the day just like everyone else, smiling and relaxed. As the big bear strode ponderously by, I was pleasantly surprised to see that those in line with me and others strolling in the vicinity completely ignored him.
I purchased a ticket and boarded the vessel and found a place to sit on the upper, open deck. In a minute or two a little girl of about ten sat beside me and across the way her parents, the father in an army uniform, both smiled at me approvingly. It was one of those rare occasions in the Soviet Union when anyone ever looked directly at me. I returned their smiles with a nod as the boat got underway.
The river was running full from the melting snow as we motored upstream. I was struck at how wide the Neva was and at how strong the current. The panorama of the city from my vantage point was impressive and its beauty singular. Hanging from the sides of a few tall buildings on both sides of the river were giant prints depicting Vladimir Lenin. They were bordered in vivid red and rippled in the breeze. The boat passed under massive stone-arch bridges as it plod through the water and after a considerable distance upstream reversed course and returned to the boat landing. Perhaps because it was a Sunday there was little river traffic to be seen.
That night, my last in the Soviet Union, I went to the top-floor restaurant of the Europeiskaya for dinner. When I had gone the evening before it was at an earlier hour and there was no one at the entrance so I had walked in and seated myself. I was waited on promptly and efficiently. This evening I emerged from the elevator (another one of those odd, jerky contraptions) and paused first at the desk taking in the scene. There were a score of people seated alongside a wall in the hallway outside no doubt waiting for tables and at a desk across from them sat a dour, heavyset woman in her forties policing the flow.
“What do you want?” the heavyset woman inquired rudely in English.
Her tone was brusque and intimidating and for a moment I was nonplus. The hallway had become very still and the eyes of the waiting diners were riveted on us. I had never been challenged in a like manner and was at a loss to understand what prompted it. When I was able to regain the ability to speak I told her, “I would like to have dinner.”
“We have no soup!” she shouted loudly, her expression stern and resolute.
I was flabbergasted and concluded I was dealing with a madwoman. When further entreaties only fell on deaf ears, I retreated in humiliation to the elevator, pushed the down button, and stood in stunned disbelief. Behind me I could hear a whiny voice pleading, “Come back. Come back,” but when the elevator doors opened I entered and descended to the first floor and went my room. I felt like a naughty boy who had been sent to his room without his supper.
Having been rebuffed at both hotel restaurants, there was no alternative but to retire to my room. Going out to find another restaurant was impossible. Sitting despondently, hunger pangs becoming noticeable, I remembered the tin of beef the lady on the train in eastern Siberia had given me and I searched through my suitcase until I came up with it. There were some leftover crackers, too, and those and the tin of meat made up my last meal in the Soviet Union. The meat, a kind of socialist Spam, was stringy but tasty and not as greasy as I thought it would be. I couldn’t help but wonder if my ghostly roommates had ever experienced such a bizarre encounter at the entrance to the restaurant as I did. Their response would have differed from mine.
TO THE BORDER
The train to Helsinki, Finland, departed Leningrad at nine o’clock in the morning with a diesel locomotive pulling two passenger cars and a diner. The Russian crew, all men, attended to the dozen or so passengers. With the exception of the locomotive engineers driving the train, the same crew would go the whole distance. It would take about six hours. Besides me, the passengers were Scandinavians, mostly (if not all) Swedes, returning from a weekend holiday. I had a compartment all to myself. In the attached dining car were refreshments and there I spent most of the time sipping Czech Pilsner and watching through surprisingly clean train windows the last of the Soviet Union go by.
The first stop was at the railroad station in Vyborg to allow the passengers to convert their Russian rubles into hard currency. I changed what little I had remaining into Finnish marks. A few miles further down the track the train stopped and Soviet immigration and customs officials came aboard to begin to pry and probe. They started with going through the Scandinavian’s luggage while I lounged in the corridor watching them, for the most part ignored. It was as thorough a search as I’ve ever seen with every item of luggage opened and gone through. I saw one official sticking pins into a cold cream jar.
Feeling neglected, I caught the eye of an idle official, the only woman in the group, motioning that I hadn’t as yet been dealt with. To me she had a kind, motherly face, expressive of a gentle, pleasant disposition that put her diligent cohorts into a bad light. She approached and went right into my compartment, glanced at the suitcase and shoulder bag, opened the suitcase and closed it in the same motion, flicked her wrist at the other one and went back out the door to stand where she had been before. That was it. Pressing my luck, I went up to her and asked her for my passport and after rifling through a stack of them pulled mine out and handed it to me with no hesitation. She must have been of higher ranking in the group and could make decisions on her own.
I remained in the corridor looking on as the hapless Swedes were attempting to put their scattered and disheveled belongings back into some semblance of order after the utter devastation wrought by the snoopers. It looked like the end of the day at a rag picker’s market and I could see they were in a foul mood. You poor devils, I thought, you really got taken to the cleaners while I came out smelling like a rose.
A tap on the shoulder and a raucous, shrill male voice commanding me to “Get in”, however, abruptly and rudely shook my reverie! I turned to face a stern, tight-faced, glaring young KGB border guard. “Get in!” he commanded, hurtling the words rudely into my face. I went into the compartment and turned immediately to face him with hot anger rising within me. “Sit!” he bellowed as if to a dog, his voice loud and menacing. With my anger surging, I remained on my feet facing this petty tyrant, straightened my shoulders, threw out my chest and locked eyes, determined to equal his ferocity tit for tat.
For some seconds it was a standoff, our eyes burning into one another, but then he blinked. Turning around, he began a search of the compartment, peering under the bunks and into the storage area above the door. I followed every move; my eyes riveted on him and my resolve unwavering, my anger at a peak. The thought of avoiding a fight with this thug never crossed my mind. When he was satisfied no one hiding in the compartment he stepped out into the corridor, turned, sneered and slammed the door shut. I lunged forward, grabbed the door handle and threw it open just as violently as he had shut it. Anticipating my move, he was there, his cruel face only inches from mine, glowering with unbridled hostility. In a moment or two he slammed the door in my face.
Shaking with fury I moved to throw the door open and confront the brute but caution prevailed and I pulled my hand away. Playing king of the hill with a bully wasn’t the way to get across the formidable border that lay just ahead. Retreating inside to the window I sat down and slowly cooled off. After a while the train came to a stop and the customs and immigration officials got off and walked toward a building nestled in some nearby trees. I looked for the guard, too, but I saw no sign of him.
Once the train was again moving, I warily opened the compartment door and peeked out into the corridor. There was nobody there. I stood at a window as the train crawled through an area of scattered trees and scrub growth and then there was a clearing, a bare strip of land, and at the near edge was a tower that rose up high above the trees. From a platform atop the tower I could see an armed guard holding his rifle tightly in his hands looking down on the train impassively, his mission to guard that vast prison that was the Soviet Union. It was a task that had to be one of the most onerous performed by any human being anywhere.
The cleared land through which the train crawled was no more than a couple of hundred feet but it seemingly took a long time to get to the other side. Then trees and shrubs appeared once more and the terrain took on the same appearance as before. But then a railroad device of some sort came into view along the tracks on which there was lettering. Focusing my eyes on it, I saw the alphabet was in Roman script. Not Cyrillic. It was Roman! I had crossed the border into Finland. I was back in the real world, the free world. The train, now with a Finnish crew in the locomotive, speeded up smartly as if feeling a similar exhilaration as me until it was racing west headlong through the forest.
My fellow passengers, the Scandinavian tourists, emerged from their compartments and joined me in the corridor. They appeared to be relishing the same feeling of freedom and exhilaration I felt and together we celebrated our deliverance. Some drifted into my compartment to chat and I asked one, a Lutheran minister, what in heavens name the customs officials were looking for in such a painstaking manner. He said he thought it was manuscripts and/or lists of names that were sometimes smuggled out of the country. The lists were illegally complied by religious sects in their attempt to proselytize Soviet nationals and the manuscripts were writings by Soviet citizens critical of their system of government.
The train soon pulled into a station in a village not far from the border where Finnish immigration officials boarded and collected our passports. The man who took mine pointed out a restaurant on the platform and suggested I wait there while a Finnish visa stamp was acquired. I readily agreed and was soon sitting on a stool in an immaculate well-lit cafe studying a menu handed to me by a pretty girl with a smile on her face. I had died and gone to heaven. When the passport was returned to me after I was back aboard the train, I saw the visa had been dated “-7 V 1984.” In the same passport a mere page away was another stamp that had been affixed in Niigata, Japan, reading “24 APR 1984.” I had been in the Soviet Union 13 days. The passport, though, showed no evidence of it. I had managed to traverse approximately 5,000 miles of the Eurasian continent, Niigata to Finland, with no documentation as to how it had been done. For thirteen days I had been a nonperson, an invisible man. It was good to be a somebody again. It was good to be alive.
Walter James Murray
Revised January 1999
From the Intourist voucher:
Date and place of arrival: April 24, 1984 Khabarovsk
“ “ departure: May 7, 1984 Vyborg
Route: from Khabarovsk 25/4
Hotels: Karbarovsk & Irkutsk: Intourist
Moscow : Cosmos
Leningrad : Europejskaya
Total amount in rubles: 465, in Japanese yen: Y183,000
Note: Links to external sites will open in new browser windows and are not endorsed by The Cold War Museum.
The Cold War Museum
P.O. Box 861526
(7142 Lineweaver Road)
Vint Hill, VA 20187